Iraq," swears Al Gore, "was the single worst strategic mistake in American history." Senate Majority leader Harry Reid agrees that the war he voted to authorize is "the worst foreign policy mistake in U.S. history," and indeed is already "lost." Many of our historically minded politicians and commanders have weighed in with similar superlatives. Retired General William Odom calls Iraq "the greatest strategic disaster in United States history." Senator Chuck Hagel (who voted for the war) is somewhat more cautious; he terms Iraq "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Jimmy Carter takes, as usual, the loftiest view: the Iraq War, and Great Britain's acquiescence in it, constitute "a major tragedy for the world," and prove that the Bush Administration "has been the worst in history."
Certainly there are legitimate questions about Iraq, as about all wars. Why, for example, did Tommy Franks, the Centcom commander who led American forces in a brilliant three-week victory over Saddam Hussein, abruptly announce his retirement in late May 2003—prompting a disruption in command just as the successful conventional war ended and an unexpected insurgency in Iraq gathered steam? Why were looters allowed to ransack much of Baghdad's infrastructure following the defeat of the Baathist army? Why "disband" the Iraqi military and purge its officer corps of Baathists at precisely the time law and order—not tens of thousands of unemployed youth—were needed? And weren't there too few occupying troops in the war's aftermath, along with too restrictive rules of engagement—but too prominent a profile for the American proconsuls busily dictating to the Iraqis?
The queries don't stop there, alas. Why in advance weren't there sufficient new-model body armor and armored Humvees to protect American troops? Why did we begin to assault Fallujah in April 2004, only to pull back for six months and then have to retake the city after the American election in November? Why were the country's borders left open to infiltrators and its ubiquitous ammunition dumps kept accessible to terrorists? The catalogue of military error could be multiplied ad nauseam. Then there are also the inevitable strategic conundrums over the need to attack Saddam's regime in the first place, given the nature of the terrorist threat, the ascendant Iranian theocracy next door, and the colossal intelligence failures concerning imagined vast depots of chemical and biological weapons.
But what is missing from the national debate over the "worst" war in our history is any appreciation of past American military errors—political, strategic, technological, intelligence, tactical—that nearly cost us victory in far more important conflicts. Nor do we accept the savage irony of war that only through errors, tragic though they may be, do successful armies adjust in time to discover winning strategies, tactics, and generals.
Preoccupied with the daily news from Baghdad, we seem to think our generation is unique in experiencing the heartbreak of an error-plagued war. We forget that victory in every war goes to the side that commits fewer mistakes—and learns more from them in less time—not to the side that makes no mistakes. A perfect military in a flawless war never existed—though after Grenada and the air war over the Balkans we apparently thought otherwise. Rather than sink into unending recrimination over Iraq, we should reflect about comparable blunders in America's past wars and how they were corrected. Without such historical knowledge we are condemned to remain shrill captives of the present.
Take one of this war's most controversial issues, intelligence failures. Supposedly we went to war in 2003 with little accurate information about either Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or its endemic religious factionalism. As a result the U.S. government lost credibility and goodwill at home and abroad, and is now plagued by enormous political and military problems in trying to stabilize a constitutional government in Iraq. Have lapses of this magnitude been unusual in past wars?
Not at all, in either a strategic or tactical context. American intelligence officers missed the almost self-evident Pearl Harbor attack, as an entire Japanese carrier group steamed unnoticed to within a few hundred miles of Hawaii. After fighting for four long years we were completely surprised by the Soviets' efforts to absorb Eastern Europe. Almost no one had a clue about the Communist invasion of South Korea in June 1950—or the subsequent Chinese entrance en masse into North Korea months later. Neither the CIA nor the State Department had much inkling that Saddam Hussein would gobble up Kuwait in August 1990.
We should remember that long before the WMD controversy, the triggers for American wars have usually been odd affairs, characterized by poor intelligence gathering and inept diplomacy—and thus endless controversy and conspiracy mongering: for example, the so-called Thornton affair that started the Mexican War; the defense and shelling of Fort Sumter; the cry of "Remember the Maine!" that heralded the Spanish-American War; the murky circumstances surrounding the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania that turned public opinion against the Kaiser; the Pearl Harbor debacle; an offhand remark in January 1950 by Secretary of State Dean Acheson that South Korea was outside our "defense perimeter"; the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; and an American diplomat's apparent signal of unconcern to Saddam Hussein immediately before he invaded Kuwait.
At the battlefield level, America's intelligence failures are even more shocking. On April 6, 1862, Union forces at Shiloh allowed a large, noisy Confederate army under General Albert Sidney Johnston to approach unnoticed (by both Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman) to within a few thousand yards of their front with disastrous results. Grant—still clueless as to the forces arrayed against him—compounded his error by sending an ambiguous message for reinforcements to General Lew Wallace, resulting in a critical delay of aid for several hours. Hundreds of Union soldiers died in the meantime. Following the battle Union generals knew even less concerning the whereabouts of the retreating, defeated Confederate forces and thus allowed them to escape in safety. The hard-won Union victory became an object of blame-gaming for the remainder of the 19th century.
Perhaps the two costliest intelligence lapses of World War II preceded the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa—both towards the end of the war, after radical improvements in intelligence methods and technology. Americans had no idea of the scope, timing, or aims of the massive German surprise attack through the Ardennes in December 1944, despite the battle-tested acumen of our two most respected generals, Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, and British and American intercepts of Wehrmacht messages. At Okinawa, American intelligence officers grievously underestimated the size, position, and nature of the Japanese deployment, and thus vastly overestimated the efficacy of their own pre-invasion bombing attacks. Yet Okinawa was not our first experience with island-hopping. It unfolded as the last invasion assault in the Pacific theater of operations—supposedly after the collective wisdom gleaned from Guadalcanal, the Marianas, Peleilu, the Philippines, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima had been well digested. Yet this late in the war, over 140,000 Americans were killed, wounded, or missing in the Ardennes and on Okinawa.
Strategic and Tactical Errors
At the geostrategic level, American diplomats have had to make devil's bargains far more morally suspect than going into Iraq. General George Patton and others lamented that World War II had broken out over saving the free peoples of Eastern Europe—only to end with the Yalta accords ensuring their enslavement by an erstwhile American ally whose military we had supplied lavishly. Today we worry whether the U.S. should have armed some jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s or whether it was moral to watch with glee as Iran and Iraq nearly annihilated one another—each occasionally helped by U.S. arms or intelligence. We forget that even worse choices than these have confronted us in the past—like sending billions of dollars of aid to Joseph Stalin, just a few years after he had slaughtered or starved to death 20 million Soviets.
In many of our wars this country has committed strategic mistakes far greater in number and toll than anything seen in Iraq. Perhaps the worst was to commit thousands of American crewmen to daylight bombing raids over occupied Europe in 1942-43. Prewar dogmas of the "bomber always gets through" blinded the proponents of air power. Ignoring its critics, the Army Air Corps sent hundreds of highly trained crews to their deaths on slow, unescorted bombing runs in broad daylight, amid thousands of German flak batteries and Luftwaffe fighters—and achieved very little in return until early 1944. Even more inexplicable was Admiral Ernest King's decision in 1942 not to use American destroyers and destroyer-escorts to shepherd merchant ships across the Atlantic to Great Britain. German U-boats had a field day, torpedoing slow-moving cargo vessels right off our east coast—which was lit up each night, as though to silhouette undefended American targets at sea. King persisted despite ample evidence from World War I that the convoy system had worked, and despite pleas from veteran British officers that their own two-year experience in the war had taught them the folly of sending unescorted merchant ships across the Atlantic.
We often read of the tragedy of the September 1944 Arnheim campaign. Impossible logistics, bad weather, lousy intelligence, tactical imbecility, and much more doomed the "Market Garden" operation and led to the infamous "A Bridge Too Far" catastrophe. Thousands of Anglo-American troops were needlessly killed or wounded—after the Allies had recently crushed an entire German army group in the west (though they let 100,000 Wehrmacht troops escape at Falaise). The foolery of Market Garden also ate up scarce resources, manpower, and gasoline at precisely the time the American Third Army was nearing the Rhine without much major opposition. Once Allied armies stalled for want of supplies, they would be unable to cross the border of the Reich for another half year. The Germans used the breathing space after their victory in Holland to rush defenders to the so-called Siegfried Line, which had been theretofore mostly undefended.
Had General Douglas MacArthur in late 1950 listened to both superiors and subordinates, he would not have sent thousands of G.I.s with long vulnerable supply lines into the far reaches of wintry North Korea—on his gut instinct that hundreds of thousands of Chinese "volunteers" would not cross the Yalu River and his troops would be "home for Christmas." When Mao ordered the massive People's Army to invade, the longest retreat in the history of U.S. forces ensued, with thousands of American casualties.
Our tactical decisions have remained even more error-prone. Grant was still sending ranks of soldiers against entrenched Confederate positions for most of summer 1864, despite Sherman's angry protests against the folly of such assaults in a rapidly changing war of massed firepower. In World War I, despite our assurances that our well-trained riflemen could broach enemy positions, seasoned British and French commanders warned novice American planners of the lethality of German rapid-firing artillery, machine guns, and poison gas. Americans died in droves before we got it right by early 1918. For all its surprises and mistakes D-Day was carefully planned and a brilliant success; its immediate aftermath was a near disaster. Within a week of the landings, Allied army groups stalled in the hedgerows for over six weeks—we suffered tens of thousands of casualties while Americans were flummoxed by entrenched, camouflaged German positions amid the narrow lanes and thick hedges. Apparently no planner had thought much about the terrain or navigability of the bocage—although Normandy was a well-traveled area and should have been familiar to American officers, many of them veterans of the fighting in France during World War I.
How about weapons parity? America has a reputation for technological prowess and machine-mastery. The phone and electric light bulb were singular American innovations; the Wright Brothers invented the airplane; Richard Gatling the first modern successful machine gun. Nevertheless in nearly every one of our major wars American troops initially entered combat with arms vastly inferior to their more experienced enemies. In this regard Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War, and the present Middle East conflicts are exceptional; these were our first major land engagements in which American weaponry has been at the outset superior in almost every category. We sent a million troops to Europe between 1917 and 1918 with weapons qualitatively inferior to both our German enemies and French and British allies. We had no tanks—and would never produce our own in any numbers until the war was well over. We relied for the most part on British- or French-designed machine guns and artillery. European airplanes were far better than American Dayton-Wright and Curtiss models. Only the American model M1903 Springfield rifle, and later the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), proved fit for the rapidly changing technological conditions of the Western Front.
Our ill-preparedness was in some sense still worse in both World War II and Korea. The United States went to war in 1941 equipped with far fewer aircraft carriers in the Pacific theater than the Japanese. Our Wildcat front-line fighters were inferior to the Japanese Zero; obsolete Brewster F2A Buffalos were rightly known as "flying coffins." The Douglas TBD Devastator bomber was a death-trap, its pilots essentially wiped out at the Battle of Midway trying to drop often unreliable torpedoes. American-designed Lee, Grant, and Stuart tanks—and even the much-heralded Shermans ("Ronson Lighters")—were intrinsically inferior to most contemporary German models, which had far better armor and armament. With the exception of the superb M-1 rifle, it is hard to rank any American weapons system as comparable to those used by the Wehrmacht, at least until 1944-45. We never developed guns quite comparable to the fast-firing, lethal German .88 artillery platform. Our anti-tank weapons of all calibers remained substandard. Most of our machine guns and mortars were reliable—but of World War I vintage. The American military learned immediately in Korea that our first-generation jet fighters—F-80 Shooting Stars—could not match Russian MiG-15s. Even improved Sherman tanks and newer M-24 Chaffee light tanks through much of 1950 were outclassed by World War II-vintage Russian T-34s and T-85s.
Have there ever been lapses in military leadership like the ones that purportedly mar our Iraq effort? The so-called "Revolt of the Generals" against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was nothing compared to the "Revolt of the Admirals" that led to Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson's forced resignation in the midst of the bitter first year of the Korean War. Johnson himself had come to office following the removal (or resignation), and then probable suicide, of Secretary James Forrestall, whose last note included a lengthy quotation from Sophocles' Ajax. Johnson's successor, the venerable General George Marshall, lasted less than a year—hounded out by Joseph McCarthy, and an object of furor in the wartime 1952 election that brought in Eisenhower (who did not defend his former superior from McCarthy's slanders). The result was that four different secretaries of defense—Forrestall, Johnson, Marshall, and Robert Lovett—served between 1949 and 1951.
Critics of the Iraq war wonder how a workmanlike Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, on whose watch Abu Ghraib occurred, had obtained command of all coalition ground forces in the first place, and later why General George Casey persisted in tactics that were aimed more at downsizing our forces than going after the enemy and fighting a vigorous war of counterinsurgency. But surely these armchair critics can acknowledge that such controversies over personnel pale in comparison to past storms. Lincoln serially fired, ignored, or bypassed mediocrities like Generals Burnside, Halleck, Hooker, McClellan, McDowell, Meade, Pope, and Rosecrans before finding Grant, George Thomas, Sherman, and Philip Sheridan—all of whom at one time or another were under severe criticism and nearly dismissed.
World War II was little better. By all accounts General John C.H. Lee set up an enormous logistical fiefdom in Paris that thrived on perks and privilege while American armies at the front were short on manpower, materials, and fuel. To this day military historians cannot quite fathom how and why Major General Lloyd Fredendall was ever given an entire corps in the North Africa campaign. His uninspired generalship led to the disaster at the Kasserine Pass and his own immediate removal. Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, a competent officer, was bewildered by the unexpected Japanese resistance on Okinawa, and unimaginatively plowed head-on through fortified enemy positions—until killed in action on the island, the most senior-ranking officer to die by enemy fire in World War II. The generalship of Mark Clark in Italy was often disastrous.
The story of the U.S. army at war is one of sacking, sidetracking, or ostracizing its highest and best-known commanders in the field—Grant after Shiloh, Douglas MacArthur in Korea, Patton in Sicily, or William Westmoreland in Vietnam—for both good and bad reasons. Iraq and Afghanistan are peculiar in that there have been so few personnel changes, much less a general consensus about perceived military incompetence. In comparison to past conflicts, the wonder is not that a gifted officer like David Petraeus came into real prominence relatively late in the present war, but that his unique talents were recognized quickly enough to allow him the command and latitude to alter the entire tactical approach to the war in Iraq.
Live and Learn, Learn and Live
What can we learn from the wartime blunders and controversies that together cost hundreds of thousands of American lives but usually did not endanger eventual victories? First, remember that such failings usually were aired in a long tradition of investigative, hard-hitting exposés and columns. Long before Seymour Hersh and Peter Arnett, Thomas Knox, Edward Crapsey, Drew Pearson, and Walter Winchell wrote scathing critiques of American military performance. In reaction, the most vehement attack on the wartime press came not from Richard Nixon, but from William Tecumseh Sherman. "If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world," he sighed, "but I am sure we would be getting reports from hell before breakfast."
Yet until the defeat in Vietnam, there was a sort of tragic acceptance of military error as inherent in war. Ours was once a largely rural population, inured to natural disaster and resigned to human shortcoming. Though Presidents Lincoln and Truman were both reviled, Americans still felt that ultimately the American system of transparency and self-criticism would correct wartime mistakes. Fault-finding and partisan grandstanding there were aplenty, but the common desire for victory usually overcame perpetual finger-pointing and serial despair. Pearl Harbor and its attendant conspiracy theories may have set the Greatest Generation back, but such losses, humiliation, and suspicion were hardly considered tantamount to American defeat.
So we plowed on, accepting that in war choices are typically between the bad and worse. It was foolhardy not to escort convoys in early World War II; but Admiral King—always suspicious of British motives—erred because he believed that such a commitment would divert precious assets from the Pacific War, where the U.S., largely alone, had to face the Japanese fleet—far larger and more formidable than Hitler's. The Sherman tank trapped and incinerated thousands of Americans when torched by Panthers and Tigers. But Patton himself saw that its dependability, speed, and sheer numbers offered countervailing advantages in racing toward the Rhine.
By the same token, for every purported blunder in Iraq, there is at least an understandable reason why errors occurred in the context of human imperfection, emotion, and fear. Such considerations do not mitigate the enormity of military mistakes, but they should foster understanding of how and why they occur. Such recognition might lend humility to critics and wisdom to the perpetrators—and prepare us to accept and deal with similar human fallibility in the future. So shoot looters—and CNN immediately would have libeled the occupation forces as recycled Saddamites. Level Fallujah—and Iraqis would have compared us to the Soviets in Afghanistan. Had we kept together the Republican Guard—if that were even possible—charges of perpetuating the agents of Saddam's genocidal regime would have followed, with unfavorable contrasts to our successful de-Nazification program after World War II. Granted, there were not enough American troops to close borders, monitor ammunition depots, and maintain order. But as a result, there were enough deployed elsewhere to discourage trouble in the Korean peninsula, reassure Europe and Japan of our material commitment to their security, fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, help keep order in the Balkans, and man dozens of bases worldwide.
When MiG-15s surprisingly proved superior to American F-80s, our Korean War planners took a pass on blaming each other and instead deployed with blinding speed the superb F-86 Sabrejet, which surpassed its Russian counterparts. Once a General Hooker or Fredendall was found incompetent, Americans expected that someone like Grant or Patton would eventually step forward from a formerly peacetime army; a General Sherman or General Petraeus doesn't emerge on the first day of a war. Only the lethal experience during 1942 and 1943 in the skies above Germany ensured that improved bombers, tactics, and escort fighters would arise to devastate the Third Reich by late 1944 and 1945, forcing the Germans to divert untold resources to counter the American air assault. We are relieved that recent emphasis on counterinsurgency under General Petraeus has brought radical improvement in Iraq in a way that previous counterterrorism tactics did not—but much of our current wisdom nevertheless accrued from the hard years of fighting between 2003 and 2006 when Americans severely weakened both al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents. Again, what loses wars are not the inevitable mistakes, but the failure to correct them in time and the defeatism and depression (because errors occurred at all) that we allow to paralyze us.
The quagmire in the hedgerows led to thousands of American deaths, but also to innovations and new tactics, whether specially equipped "Rhino" Sherman tanks or B-17s used tactically to blow holes in the German lines (and kill and wound hundreds of Americans in "friendly fire" blunders). Likewise, we may have started in Iraq with the naïve belief that thin-skinned Humvees were simply updated Jeeps good enough to transport personnel behind the lines. But we quickly learned that in a war with no lines they became underarmored coffins—prompting a challenge and response cycle between the enemy's Improvised Explosive Devices and our armor. Frenzied development efforts produced up-armored kits, factory-designed models with superior protection, and entirely new vehicles like the Strykers, MRAPs (mine resistant, ambush protected), and Rhinos.
The Home Front
The home front once accepted that our adversaries faced the same obstacles and challenges of war. Moreover Americans assumed that the enemy, being less introspective and self-critical, was even more prone to military error than we—and less likely to innovate and correct. That confidence ensured that the public saw mistakes not just in absolute but also in relative terms. World War I saw one million ill-equipped Doughboys deployed against the most experienced and deadly modern army the world had yet seen. But the mass drafting of one million soldiers, equipped and sent across the Atlantic in a mere year, was acknowledged on all sides as a feat even beyond the ability of the Kaiser's general staff. In World War II, lapses in our convoy system were hardly as damaging to us as Germany's repeated mistakes at sea were to the Nazi cause—faulty torpedoes, poor air support for submarine operations, and abject security breaches that lent the Allies almost instantaneous knowledge of the Kriegsmarine's operations. There is no need to document the stupendous strategic and tactical blunders that led to Saddam's ignominious defeat. But in his wake (and after his demise), the supposedly sophisticated jihadists have made just as many mistakes. In a self-proclaimed war of Islamic liberation, al-Qaeda in Iraq has mutilated, butchered, and terrorized a once largely sympathetic population. As a result they have nearly pulled off the impossible: a formerly receptive Sunni tribal community has turned against Sunni Muslim jihadists, and joined with American infidels, sometimes alongside the troops of a Shiite-led government.
In past wars there was recognition of factors beyond human control—the weather; the fickleness of human nature; the role of chance, the irrational, and the inexplicable—that lent a humility to our efforts and tolerance for unintended consequences. "Wars begin when you will," Machiavelli reminds us, "but they do not end when you please." The star-crossed and disastrous Dieppe raid of August 1942 did not mean that D-Day two years later had to fail. When in March 1945 maverick General Curtis LeMay sent high-altitude precision B-29 bombers carrying napalm in low over Tokyo, with little if any armament, the expected American bloodbath did not follow—thanks to a ferocious jet stream and dark nights that meant the huge planes came in much faster and with better cover. "To a good general," wrote the Roman historian Livy, "luck is important." By contrast the American media went into near hysterics during the so-called "pause" in the three-week victory over Saddam, when an unforeseen sandstorm temporarily stalled our advance. Only later was it revealed that air operations with precision weapons had continued all along to decimate Saddam's static forces.
WMDs were not found in Iraq, it is true. Yet an earlier American generation might have consoled itself with the notion that at last we had proved (as previous intelligence had not) that Saddam no longer posed a threat, and ensured that Iraq would not again translate oil wealth into the deadly forces with which it had attacked four of its neighbors. Our ancestors might have added that the war had effectively raised our standard of proof from "We must prove that you have WMDs" to "You must prove that you don't." Libya, for example, had more WMDs than Saddam did—and may well have given them up to avoid the latter's fate.
Has War Changed, or Have We?
Victory does not require achieving all of your objectives, but achieving more of yours than your enemy does of his. Patient Northerners realized almost too late that victory required not merely warding off or defeating Confederate armies, but also invading and occupying an area as large as Western Europe in order to render an entire people incapable of waging war. Blunders were seen as inevitable once an unarmed U.S. decided to fight Germany, Italy, and Japan all at once in a war to be conducted far away across wide oceans, against enemies that had a long head start in rearmament. We had disastrous intelligence failures in World War II, but we also broke most of the German and Japanese codes in a fashion our enemies could neither fathom nor emulate. Somehow we forget that going into the heart of the ancient caliphate, taking out a dictator in three weeks, and then staying on to foster a constitutional republic amid a sea of enemies like Iran and Syria and duplicitous friends like Jordan and Saudi Arabia—and losing less than 4,000 Americans in the five-year enterprise—was beyond the ability of any of our friends or enemies, and perhaps past generations of Americans as well.
But more likely the American public, not the timeless nature of war, has changed. We no longer easily accept human imperfections. We care less about correcting problems than assessing blame—in postmodern America it is defeat that has a thousand fathers, while the notion of victory is an orphan. We fail to assume that the enemy makes as many mistakes but addresses them less skillfully. We do not acknowledge the role of fate and chance in war, which sometimes upsets our best endeavors. Most importantly we are not fixed on victory as the only acceptable outcome.
What are the causes of this radically different attitude toward military culpability? An affluent, leisured society has adopted a therapeutic and managerial rather than tragic view of human experience—as if war should be controllable through proper counseling or a sound business plan. We take for granted our ability to talk on cell phones to someone in Cameroon or select from 500 cable channels; so too we expect Saddam instantly gone, Jeffersonian democracy up and running reliably, and the Iraqi economy growing like Dubai's in a few seasons. If not, then someone must be blamed for ignorance, malfeasance, or inhumanity. It is as though we expect contemporary war to be waged in accordance with warranties, law suits, and product recalls, and adjudicated by judges and lawyers in stale courtrooms rather than won or lost by often emotional youth in the filth, confusion, and barbarity of the battlefield
Vietnam's legacy was to insist that if American aims and conduct were less than perfect, then they could not be good at all, as if a Stalinist police state in the North were comparable—or superior—to a flawed democracy in the South with the potential to evolve in the manner of a South Korea. The Vietnam War was not only the first modern American defeat, but also the last, and so its evocation turns hysterical precisely because its outcome was so unusual. Later victories in Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I, and the Balkans persuaded Americans that war could be redefined, at the end of history, as something in which the use of force ends quickly, is welcomed by locals, costs little, and easily thwarts tyranny. When all that proved less than true in Iraq, the public was ill-equipped to accept both that recent walk-over victories were military history's exceptions rather than its rule, and that temporary setbacks in Iraq hardly equated to Vietnam-like quagmires.
We also live in an age of instant communications increasingly contingent upon genre and ideology. The New York Times, CBS News, National Public Radio, and Reuters—the so-called mainstream media skeptical of America's morality and its ability to enact change abroad—instill national despair by conveying graphic scenes of destruction in Iraq without, however, providing much context or explaining how such information is gathered and selected for release. In turn, Fox News, the bloggers, and talk radio hear from their own sources that we are not doing nearly so badly, and try to offer real-time correctives to conventional newspapers and studios. The result is that the war is fought and refought in 24-hour news cycles among diverse audiences, in which sensationalism brings in ad revenues or enhances individual careers. Rarely is there any sober, reasoned analysis that examines American conduct over periods of six months or a year—not when the "shocking" stories of Jessica Lynch or Abu Ghraib or Scott Beauchamp make and sell better copy. Sensationalism was always the stuff of war reporting, but today it is with us in real time, 24/7, offered up by often anonymous sources, and filtered in a matter of hours or minutes by nameless editors and producers. Those relentless news alerts—tucked in between apparently more important exposés about Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith—ultimately impart a sense of confusion and bewilderment about what war is. The result is a strange schizophrenia in which the American public is too insecure to believe that we can rectify our mistakes, but too arrogant to admit that our generation might make any in the first place.
What can be done about our impatience, historical amnesia, and utopian demands for perfection? American statesmen need to provide constant explanations to a public not well versed in history—not mere assertions—of what misfortunes to expect when they take the nation to war. The more a president evokes history's tragic lessons, the better, reminding the public that our forefathers usually endured and overcame far worse. Americans should be told at the start of every conflict that the generals who begin the fighting may not finish it; that what is reported in the first 24 hours may not be true after a week's retrospection, and that the alternative to the bad choice is rarely the good one, but usually only the far worse. They should be apprised that our morale is as important as our material advantages—and that our will power is predicated on inevitable mistakes being learned from and rectified far more competently and quickly than the enemy will learn from his.
Only that way can we reestablish our national wartime objective as victory, a goal that brings with it the acceptance of tragic errors as well as appreciation of heroic and brilliant conduct. The Iraq war and the larger struggle against the anti-American jihadists can still be won—and won with a resulting positive assessment of our overall efforts by future historians who will be far less harsh on us than we are now on ourselves. Yet if as a nation we instead believe that we cannot abide error, or that we cannot win due to necessary military, moral, humanitarian, financial, or geopolitical constraints, then we should not ask our young soldiers to continue to try. As in Vietnam where we wallowed in rather than learned from our shortcomings, we should simply accept defeat and with it the ensuing humiliating consequences. But it would be far preferable for Americans undertaking a war to remember these words from Churchill, in his 1930 memoir: "Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter."
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.